Aug. 26, 2008
UT Head Coach J.J. Clark knows the path to excellence and achieving one's goals is not an easy one. That sort of journey comes with its ups and downs, with obstacles that challenge even the most determined among us. Such was the case for the 2007 Lady Vol cross country team.
Had the members of last year's Big Orange squad not followed their coach's lead, they may have been overcome with frustration from a season that provided lots of roadblocks to maneuver around along the way. Yet, they did realize, through all the difficult times, that they do not face adversity alone at Tennessee, and brighter days are always ahead. Through success and struggle, triumph and disappointment, as Lady Vols, they are "In It Together...For The Long Run."
Just getting together as one unit in 2007 proved to be one of the most difficult challenges. It wasn't until the SEC meet that Clark was able to assemble his top lineup. The call for others to step up in the absence of teammates, however, will certainly pay dividends down the road.
It all began on a warm Aug. 31 evening in Nashville's Percy Warner Park, as the Lady Vols, chosen No. 26 in the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) rankings, popped the top on their campaign for the third straight time at the Belmont Opener. And, for the second occasion in three years, Sarah Bowman began her season with a victory. The UT junior rolled to a career-best clocking of 14 minutes, 0.58 seconds on the 4,000-meter course to lead the Big Orange to the team title after settling for runner-up honors the past two years. For her efforts, she was named the SEC Runner of the Week.
Lending a hand for Clark's crew and posting top-five finishes were junior Katie Van Horn and sophomore Jackie Areson, who crossed the line third and fifth in 14:24.32 and 14:33.73, respectively. They helped UT tally 53 points to hold off runner-up Vanderbilt (58) and 14 other squads.
Freshman Brittany Sheffey made her collegiate debut a memorable one, scoring in fourth position and finishing 16th overall in 15:07.33. Sophomore Phoebe Wright, meanwhile, contributed to the team cause for the first time in her career by holding down the fifth point-producing slot and placing 28th in 15:31.71. Also running but not scoring were juniors Rolanda Bell (39th, 16:03.23) and Kimarra McDonald (63rd, 16:56.14).
After the Tennessee Invitational on Sept. 14 was scaled back to a time trial, Clark added the Sept. 22 Bulldog Stampede in Athens, Ga., to the schedule to replace it and traveled only five runners. Bowman was sharp once again, pacing No. 26 Tennessee to second-place in the team race, finishing as the top collegian and placing second overall on the 5K UGA Golf Course in 17:37.45.
The other Lady Vol participants included Van Horn (11th, 18:31.33), Sheffey (15th, 18:36.65), Bell (25th, 19:35.36) and Wright (29th, 19:51.69). For the second meet in a row, Bowman was named SEC Runner of the Week.
Road trip number three saw Team Orange make its fifth straight trek to Bethlehem, Pa., to take part in the 6K Paul Short Run at Lehigh University's famed Goodman Campus Course. UT, now No. 28 nationally, again was paced by Bowman.
After coming in 34th at the meet in 2006, the third-year performer rose to a ninth-place outcome a year later in 20:51. That result enabled the Big Orange to wind up eighth out of 47 teams.
Also running a strong race was Van Horn, who covered the distance in 21:03 to place 16th. Sheffey (66th, 22:03), Areson (77th, 22:15) and Bell (113th, 22:41) were the other three scorers, while Wright was UT's sixth finisher and 137th overall in 22:55.
Two weeks later, Tennessee had slipped out of the rankings, but the squad followed suit by placing eighth as it made its fourth appearance at the Penn State National Invitational in the past six seasons. Bowman once again led the orange-tinted charge, navigating the PSU Golf Course trail in 21:07 to check in fifth.
Areson demonstrated her growing confidence, running second behind Bowman and knocking out a 13th-place output in 21:31. Van Horn wasn't far behind, hitting the finish chute in 21:36 to clock in 17th. Sheffey and Bell nailed down the four and five positions by taking 60th in 22:23 and 103rd in 23:21, respectively, while Wright just missed scoring with her 104th-place showing of 23:23.
Meet number five would bring the SEC Championship race, and Clark finally would be able to send his projected lineup onto the course. Junior Heidi Magill-Dahl, who had been unable to compete up to this point while waiting to make sure all the necessary credits would transfer from her previous school, BYU, finally had been cleared. Still, questions remained about how well she would compete in her first race and how her presence would affect team chemistry.
The former Cougar proved to be up to the task, finishing ninth overall in 21:16.45 to garner All-SEC acclaim. Fortunately for Tennessee two Lady Vols did even better en route to all-league honors. Bowman, posting her highest ever conference result at fourth, handled the Kentucky Horse Park course in 20:58.13 to collect her third All-SEC certificate. Van Horn wasn't far behind, traversing the trail in 21:09.20 to snag seventh and earn her first All-SEC nod.
Sheffey and Areson, who began to experience injury trouble during the race, rounded out the scoring five, finishing 28th in 21:46.03 and 38th in 22:01.58, respectively. Bell (54th, 22:56.21) and Wright (60th, 23:04.17) also competed as unranked Tennessee (84) carded a second-place team finish behind Arkansas (39) and one spot ahead of Georgia (85) that surprised many of the league's coaches.
"A lot of coaches congratulated me more for this finish than they did the years when we won the meet," Clark said. "I think we shocked a lot of people, because we hadn't been doing as well as we were expected to do at the beginning of the season. It was our best performance of the year, absolutely.
"We did insert Heidi, but everyone else stepped up also. Sarah ran another good, solid race, Katie answered the bell and our freshman, Brittany Sheffey, improved her time by a minute. It was very good to see the team pull together like that. I was very proud of the effort they put forth."
Coming off the program's sixth consecutive top-three SEC effort and a very satisfying performance, the UT camp should have been entering the NCAA South Regional on a high note. Instead, the paper thin lineup, which had recently become satisfactory with the addition of Magill-Dahl, took another hit. It was revealed that Areson had a foot injury that would sideline her for the rest of the cross country season and, as it turned out, the entire track campaign.
With that thought weighing on his mind, Clark rallied the troops and they soldiered on, heading to Gainesville, Fla., for the NCAA South Regional. Now back in the rankings at No. 25 after their SEC performance, and with a sixth-straight NCAA Championships appearance at stake, Tennessee's runners toed the starting line with a never-say-die attitude.
Van Horn, Bowman and Magill-Dahl did their part to put UT into position for a national berth, crossing the finish line at the University of Florida Golf Course in 11th (21:06.48), 14th (21:12.19) and 16th (21:15.36) places, respectively. For those performances, all three were accorded All-South Region recognition.
As the rest of the runners came to the finish chute, it was apparent that the Lady Vols would not be among the top two team finishers who receive the automatic qualifying berths to the national meet. They were within reach, though, of placing third or fourth and garnering an at-large invitation.
Sheffey had run well enough to place 33rd in a time of 22:01.87, and Bell was in the same neighborhood, giving Clark hope of a trip to nationals in Terre Haute, Ind. That optimism was quickly extinguished, however, when Bell was disqualified for inadvertently tangling with a competitor as she neared the finish line. As a result, Tennessee had to count Wright's 87th-place time of 23:57.91 in its team total.
That blow resulted in the Big Orange still winding up fourth, but a very distant fourth with 152 points instead of a more competitive score in the 90s. When it came time for the selection committee to choose teams, that performance was not enough to merit UT's inclusion in the NCAA field. For Clark, it seemed on par with the difficulties his team had to face in 2007.
"We had three all-region runners and some outstanding performances, but we just had so many obstacles this year," Clark said. "Losing Jackie the week before the race was very tough. We probably would have advanced (to nationals) without much problem.
"Losing her was tough, and to put the nail in the coffin, so to speak, was Rolanda getting disqualified. It was very, very disappointing to hear the officials' ruling on that."
Despite the misfortune, Clark found some silver linings.
"Our season was successful," Clark said. "We were second at SECs and fourth at regionals. We have a very high expectation for ourselves, and our goal was to win both of them before the season started, not knowing what was in store for us from a standpoint of Heidi not being eligible until SECs, the injury to Jackie or Rolanda's disqualification.
"There were just a lot of things going on that were hindering us this season, and as a result we'll be stronger next season and hungrier to win. The critical thing is how we came together many times during the year as a team and supported each other. That is important when you are developing a program for the long run."